Robert Hall's second film as director exploits his experience as a special effects whiz in the horror genre for almost 15 years, but in terms of a rewarding movie, Laid to Rest will only satisfy fans strictly interested in gore. The killings and cadaver bits are the stars, and the best performance is delivered by Nick Principe as Chrome Skull, a tall, graceful, black-clad figure who roams the United States and snatches and chops up women.
Each assault, kill, and dismemberment is filmed with a shoulder-cam, and the serial killer sends the tapes to the police to taunt them (although how he makes copies is unclear, since the originals are kept in the car’s glove compartment).
As far as any police investigation goes, no one knows where or when the chrome-masked devil will strike, but the next batch of intended chum manage to find more clues than the local police by checking some facts on the internet.
There's an obvious tongue-in-cheek quality to the dialogue, the characters, the bad acting, and the shock sequences – the facial bisection of Johnathon Schaech (Masters of Horror II: The Washingtonians) is stunning, and Chrome Skull getting his just desserts is utterly grotesque – but no matter how eloquently writer/director Robert Hall regards his homage to seventies slasher films, this is a badly directed film that’s just a nudge above Uli Lommel’s own clunkers.
It’s worth hearing the commentary track with the director and star/producer Bobbi Sue Luther (Hall’s wife) as well as watching the making-of featurette because it’s clear this was a fun little film made with favours and friends and affection, and a means to spotlight Hall and Luther’s respective directing and acting chops.
As Hall explains in his commentary, when cinematographer Brandon Trost (who shot Hall’s debut, Lightning Bug) went on to shoot Crank: High Voltage (2009), Hall opted for music video cinematographer Scott Winig, and had him design an overlit look that always makes one aware there’s a light stand and blue gel a few meters away. It’s only when the characters are in a practical location, like the variety store at the end, where the cinematography is more dramatic, and believable.
The needs of a low budget production mandated a careful production schedule, and as the “Workflow” chapter in the featurette explains, Hall opted to use an excellent Panasonic HD camera that recorded onto a solid state media. The chip was then plopped into a Mac, and the film was edited on set, sometimes with scenes cut overnight so the production could spot any flaws and shoot inserts when a sequence needed more footage. In practical terms, it’s an efficient method that guaranteed high turnaround and quality checking, since reshoots boost a budget and are a headache when the cast and crew have already moved on to other work.
The problem in cutting so fast is the scenes have a rushed feel. Only the gore and chase sequences have momentum, whereas pure dialogue scenes – such as the conversation between Luther and actress Lena Headey – are amateurishly cut. Whether it’s the editor or director Hall, there’s no sense of how to balance reactions with dialogue, and the footage itself is bland medium and close-ups. Continuity also gets messy in a church scene where four characters argue, and screen direction is scattered until someone moves closer to the group.
The irony is the production ultimately did a few reshoots (including the addition of Schaeck’s demise), but the major flaw of Laid to Rest is the lack of any tangible story at play; the film only clicks when its an effects sequence, and it’s a problem several effects gurus have experienced in their early work. (A grand case in point is Stephen Norrington’s Death Machine, which is two-thirds snooze, and one-third kinetic mayhem, naturally in the final act.)
An effects-centric shocker is fine; there’s nothing wrong with a ninety-minute bloodbath about a killer meting out justice or perversions to victims, but when scenes are clumsy and characters do dumb things purely because the director has no other means of logically bringing victims and killer together again, it’s frustrating. There’s also no logic to the killer: he wears a chrome skull, kills girls during an apparently nation-wide road trip, drags them back alive or dead to a big old barn near a funeral parlor run by Richard Lynch (Vampire), chops them up, and then keeps the parts in coffins, and… that’s it.
Chrome Skull wears a mask to cover a largely non-functional face (we don’t know why he’s experienced facial trauma) and uses an adhesive that presumably aggravates his already lousy skin. He heals himself like the Predator creature by injecting himself with medical goo and sewing up slits, and because he can’t speak, uses a cellphone to send text messages and sound samples from his victims to tease, taunt, and communicate with victims. (Exactly how he’s able to sample words from his victims and transfer them from DV tape to some elaborate cellphone database and play them back in coherent sentences is a mystery.)
The characters are also in need of an IQ injection. A variety store clerk confronts Chrome Skull and issues verbal threats. The girl inside the store (Luther) has made it very clear that the masked guy wielding blood-stained, chrome-plated hunting knives is a threat. Rather than issue a warning shot with his shotgun or fire at Chrome Skull’s arm, the clerk keeps talking until the killer grabs the gun and blows the kid’s face off. Great effect, but the scene kind of goes against Hall’s original design of writing a film that avoids the clichés and stupidities of lesser films, and is supported by strong characters, like the amnesiac girl (Luther’s character has no name) who’s ostensibly the focus of the film.
Anchor Bay’s DVD offers a decent array of extras, but they’re probably of interest to fans more accepting of the film’s glaring flaws and aficionados of Halls work in the horror genre. The digital transfer is clean, the Dolby Surround is sharp, and the music score by Deadbox (Hall, editor Andrew Bentler, and actor Thomas Dekker) is fine in hitting the right beats when things are tense, or when characters get a moment of introspection.
The commentary is fairly standard, and offers slightly different material than the more compact making-of featurette that goes through all the major segments of production and post-production. The gore effects get their own featurette, and Hall describes the fine marriage of practical and digital effects that make the gore appropriately disgusting.
A deleted scenes gallery is actually preceded by a funny spoof on the finale between the girl and Chrome Skull, and a the blooper reel includes a few funny flubs.
The DVD sleeve art is also quite clever in showing a still of Headey and a blood-splattered shot of Luther that makes it seem it’s the same character; Luther is the de facto star of the film, whereas Headey appears in just a few scenes in the first third. (The actress and Hall know each other from Headey’s show The Sarah Connor Chronicles, in which Luther also appeared in an episode.)
Laid to Rest isn’t direct-to-video fodder, but as an homage to vintage slashers, it’s a dud.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan